UPDATE FROM RUSSIA: COVID AND THE CONSTITUTION

Painting by Luga artist Sergei Yudin

The summer is coming to a close here in Luga, Russia. When I went on my walk this morning it was 56 degrees (F). These kinds of temps still seem odd to me since in my native state of South Carolina the last couple of weeks of August are often the hottest of the summer. I’ve had some questions on how things are going with COVID, and also I wanted to update readers on the revised Russian Constitution.

I am also bothered by the continued extremely negative treatment of Russia that I’m reading in the Western press and wanted to address the misinformation about interference (as usual), Navalny and a couple of other issues. There simply was not enough space to address everything, however, so the latter issues will be in my next blog—which I’ve already started writing.

COVID 19. Before I discuss any specific numbers I want again to state that in my opinion there is no way to determine how accurate the figures are from any country. I personally think that in the case of the U.S. it is impossible, given what the health officials themselves have said. Russia has been accused, as I mentioned a couple of blogs ago, of altering the figures here. I’ve heard that from America, and I’ve heard it from some Russians. Unlike in the U.S., however, no evidence for that accusation has actually been presented. I will give the recent “official” figures with the understanding there are probably some inaccuracies. I think the numbers do help us understand the general situation in the countries.

In my last status report I indicated I am a bit obsessed with checking all possible numbers daily from at least two or three sources. There has been a steady, albeit gradual, decline in the number of new cases in Russia since early May. (See https://www.coronatracker.com/country/russia/ ) The figures don’t look like they are being altered to me—at least not on a grand scale.

Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of highest numbers of CV cases, but that is a misleading for two reasons. First, there is a large gap between the top four. The United States has had over 6 million total cases and now has 2.5 million active cases; Brazil (#2) and India (#3) both have had well over 3 million cases, and both currently have around 700,000 active cases. Russia has had a total of just over 975, 000 cases and currently has 165,025 active cases, so Russia is far below the top three. The second reason the raw numbers are misleading is while Russia is ranked fourth in total numbers, per capita it ranks 33rd. 81.4% of Russians who have had CV have already recovered. The fatality rate is 1.7%.

Russia, like almost every developed country, has suffered negative economic and employment consequences from COVID. Nevertheless, given the positive trend in the numbers, restrictions have been greatly eased in most cities. Restaurants have been open for several weeks for inside dining here in Luga. I rarely see people wearing masks on my walks, although there never was anything close to a majority of the people wearing them. I had a dental appointment this week, and most people wore masks when entering but then removed them after a while inside. Children will go back to regular school on September 1, although there are rumors they will switch to “e-learning” at the first sign of problems.

I have a number of Orthodox Christian readers who have asked me about the impact of COVID on our Liturgy and church attendance. So I’ll add a caveat to address that issue. My understanding just from what my readers said is that the Orthodox Church in America, of which we were members, has been rather strict in terms of numbers of people who can attend Liturgy, the wearing of masks, and even changing the way the Eucharist is observed.

During normal times the Orthodox Churches (at least the ones I’ve attended) observe Communion in way that shocks my Protestant friends. The bread is placed with the wine in the chalice. At the proper time toward the end of the Liturgy we go forward in a line and the priest gives us the bread and wine in a spoon from a common cup. We also kiss the cup, kiss the priest’ hand, and kiss the icons as acts of veneration. Even before the pandemic some of my non-Orthodox friends cringed when I told them that the same spoon is used for all of us. I won’t go into the Orthodox understanding of the body and blood of Christ that explains the practice, but the phrase, “Communion is the medicine of immortality” sums it up.

Some of my Orthodox readers from America say it is now done differently there, but I really did not understand their explanation, so I won’t comment on how it is in America. Practices in our church here have changed very little. There are no limits to the number who may attend (last Sunday, for instance, we had a larger than normal crowd). People stand maybe a little further apart during the Liturgy, but clearly not 2 meters. We say the Symbol of Faith and the prayers the same as always without wearing masks. The priest in our church here in Russia continues to administer the body and blood of Christ the same way. He uses the same spoon from the same chalice. So COVID has not really impacted the Orthodox here in small town Russia very much.

I stick by my earlier explanation for why Russia’s COVID numbers are so low even though its guidelines were not as strict nor as clear as in other countries. First, early on Russia poured a lot of effort and money into giving large numbers of tests. Thus, I think they were able to stay on top of things and knew where the danger areas were. Second, despite differences of opinions between various mayors and governors, there was not the over-the-top political infighting I saw in America. It seemed to me whichever position Trump took, the Democrats took the opposite. Trump’s tweets were nasty and personal, and his opponents responded in kind. I just did not see that here. I watched the video conferences on the Kremlin web-site. Moscow handled things in a much more strict manner than St. Petersburg, but the officials didn’t argue about it. I don’t agree with everything Russia did, but hindsight is always 20/20. I didn’t have the weight of the decisions on my shoulders so it is easy for me to second guess.

Nevertheless, the borders of Russia are still closed to most countries. They are open to the U.K., Turkey, Tanzania and Switzerland. I saw articles in July that there were those in the Kremlin who wanted to open the borders to everyone in mid-August. That did not happen. There is still no official word on when the borders will open. A couple of days ago Putin did sound a bit optimistic about opening them, but he said it is going to be gradual.

This is very frustrating to us because I have been contacted by two families who are wanting to plan a visit here in view of possibly moving to Russia. They are trying to get their passports and visas ready, but it is difficult. There is another American family I have mentioned before who is currently in Serbia wanting to join us permanently here in the Luga district as soon as they get permission from the Russian Consulate. We are anxiously awaiting some kind of official word. So overall, there are still frustrations, but life in general is pretty much back to normal in Luga. Our kids have had a great summer playing with friends and enjoying the mild temperatures.

THE CONSTITUTION. I wrote a blog back in February about a speech President Putin gave in which he mentioned revising the Russian Constitution. I didn’t really deal much with the possible changes, because his speech contained only vague comments about them at the end. He focused on his frustration that not more had been done for families with children, health care, etc. The Western press jumped on the speech and ignored the issues he focused on and said the speech was an attempt by Putin to become president for life. My point was whatever his plans are for remaining as president, they were not revealed in that speech.

The new Constitution was revised with the referendum taken from 25 June to 1 July. It was approved by a vote of 78%, with voter turnout of 65%. Obviously I have space for only a few points that are commonly mentioned. (For a full version of the Constitution in English see http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-01.htm.)

1 The Russian Federal government has authority over all territories and structures, as well as national policies. No international laws or treaties may supersede Russian federal law. The point here is that Russia clearly stands against “globalism.” There is a strong belief here that every country has the right to dictate its own policies and write its own laws without interference from foreign actors.

2 The Russian Federation has a unified 1,000 year history. It has a culture with a belief in God which has been passed down from its ancestors. The mention of God was quite different from the negative language on religion in the 1918 Constitution which was interpreted to allow the government to confiscate all Church property.

3 Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Same sex marriage in Russia will remain illegal and is now officially unconstitutional. This point, coupled with the statement on belief in God, pleased the Russian Orthodox Church and all believers. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/blog/2020/07/russia-affirms-and-defends-traditional-marriage-rejects-lgbtq-delusion/ I have stated before that in Russia same sex relationships are not illegal. Same sex marriage is. It is also illegal for same sex couples to flaunt their affections in public places where children may be present.

5 Another significant change was powers of the presidency were reduced. While many American politicians and media outlets have criticized Putin for having had so much power, they neglect to mention (or are simply ignorant of) the fact the extreme powers of the presidency in Russia were granted by the 1993 Constitution which was certainly shaped with help from American “advisers.” Boris Yeltsin was president. He did pretty much what America said, so America wanted the Russian president to have a lot of power. Now that Putin refuses to submit to their authority, they call him an autocrat with too much presidential power. The reductions in Presidential powers were primarily in the area of appointments the president can make, e.g., Prime Minister.

6 The president is limited to only two terms. Before the president was limited to two consecutive terms. Hence, Putin served two four year terms. The length of a term was expanded to six years after the next President, Dimitri Medvedev, had served one four-year term. Putin was then elected to two more six year terms. He could not do that under the revised Constitution.

Nevertheless, events which followed the adoption got the most attention. Former Russian cosmonaut and current member of the State Duma, Valentina Tereshkova, proposed that Putin’s terms would be “restarted” under the new Constitution. She was the first woman in space and is quite popular in Russia. Her motion carried with little or no opposition. Thus, when Putin completes this term in 2024, he will be eligible to run for two more six year terms if he so chooses.

Of course, many believe Tereshkova was prompted by Putin to make the recommendation. Others believe she and other members (with whom she almost certainly conferred) simply wanted to give Putin the option if he wants it. There are those who believe Putin was behind this all along; others believe the lower Duma was doing what the majority of Russian citizens want. I don’t know who talked to whom, and I don’t see any minds changing.

Despite what I’ve seen both in uninformed articles on Fox News and reports on CNN, reliable polls such as Levada and Gallup, show the majority of Russians want Putin to stay on as president. Approval ratings did drop during the earlier stages of COVID, but it was not nearly the “collapse” I read about in the Western reports. The lowest I saw Putin’s approval numbers drop to was 59%.

There are various reasons for these high numbers in my opinion: many remember what life was like when he became president in 2000. Whatever flaws he has, they like the way he has guided Russia to where it is now. Many of my older friends remember what is was like going without pay for months and months in the 90s. Others like his traditional values and support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Since I am Russian Orthodox, I have heard this stated several times. Others simply do not see a better option. They are not strong supporters of Putin, but the experience with Medvedev leaves them reluctant to take a risk with someone else right now.

I also have friends here who hope Putin is defeated. They are struggling financially and believe new policies and a “fresh” perspective on the economy are needed. A number of individuals are not so much against Putin as they are tired of him. They want new blood. They appreciate what he has done; they believe he has served well; but it is time to step aside.

The good news, as I have said many times before, is people here express their views in a way that—at least from my experience—does not lead to screaming and ranting. It is NOT like the nastiness of American political discussions which often end friendships. As much as the American political and media establishment don’t like it, the move to allow Putin to run for two more terms was in accordance with the will of the majority of Russians. Sounds almost like a democracy.

I don’t know if he’ll run again or not. This term does not end until 2024. A lot can happen. He’s 67 years old, but he is in very good health so my hunch is he will run again. I may be reading into it, but he seems to have this sense of mission. It does not appear to me like the “addiction to attention” I’ve seen in so many politicians.

Since bloggers are supposed to be brave I’ll state my own view: I hope he runs again. I really do understand my Russian friends who disagree. And I am not Russian, so I certainly do not overestimate the importance of my views on Russian politics. My perspective is as an American living here. I am not a citizen and cannot vote. For what it is worth, here are my reasons.

First, I remember what it was like here in 2002 when I first came to Russia. That was after things started to get better, but I was shocked at how “backward” this country was. It isn’t like that anymore. I mentioned my dental appointment. I have never been in a dental office in America with so much modernized equipment. From the fancy CT machine, to the ultrasonic dental drill that works using high frequency ultrasonic vibrations, to the little device that tells you if you reached the end of the root canal… My dental problem was complicated and I won’t go into it, but after 3 hours of working on me she regretfully said she could not completely repair the problem and referred me to a dental clinic in St. Petersburg that uses a microscope when drilling. So she charged me nothing. She refused payment: “If I cannot fix your problem, I do not take your money.” At my last physical examination, my doctor did ultrasounds of my internal organs and did numerous other evaluations far beyond what I had ever received in a physical examination in America—and charged me far less.

Second, I have heard and read some of the nastiest things possible said about Putin from American politicians and the mainstream media. He has been openly called a thug, another Hitler, a murderer, and many other nasty things. He has been blamed for almost every problem America has. As Nancy Pelosi said, “All roads lead to Putin.” America has essentially surrounded Russia with missiles, and then Lindsey Graham recently said it is really Putin who is sowing discord throughout the world.

Putin has NEVER descended to their level. He has remained calm and diplomatic. When he speaks about America to his Russian audience he does so with class. I fear another president would not exercise this same discipline. We live in a nuclear age and the “new cold war” is far more dangerous than the old one according to most experts. I have never seen a politician who has set aside his own ego in the way Putin has. As an American living in Russia, I fear what could happen between my two countries if someone else sat behind that desk in the Kremlin without the same demeanor and self-control.

My third reason is more general—and a bit negative. When I look at America and see the news, I know I can’t go back to that anger and violence I see in the streets. The violence is not just in the big cities anymore. As I’ve said before, I don’t wear a MAGA hat, but if Trump makes decisions that lead to bringing troops home and ending American interventions then I applaud him. I’m glad he has not started any new wars, but not starting a new war is a low bar of foreign policy accomplishment. I repeat my oft stated animosity for his Secretary of State’s intrusions into the affairs of other countries and violations of international law. So I just can’t jump on the Trump bandwagon, but neither do I trust the likes of Pelosi, Schumer, Biden and Schiff. In an atmosphere filled with polemic, people expect you to choose a side.

Here in Russia I believe the values that we as a family hold—both cultural and religious—are respected and encouraged. Yet, Russia was an atheistic country for 70 years. Thus, I have good friends here who do not hold to my religious or moral views. But we still share deep common values on freedom and the need for peaceful international relationships. I’m not looking to live in a country where all my beliefs and personal morals are imposed on others. I have found Russia to be a place where different views can be respectfully and freely expressed and those differences appreciated.

Russia is a great place to raise a family. And being an American has never been a problem here for me or my kids. My children still speak English, but they have gotten more used to speaking Russian. The fact they speak English is regarded as a positive thing in Luga. Being Americans makes them interesting to people here. Nobody expresses animosity to us or toward America. My kids also feel patriotism toward Russia. Given the atmosphere in America after four years of Russia-bashing, I’m not at all sure how we would be treated if we went back.

Is Putin responsible for all the positive developments here? He is certainly not solely responsible. I think it is also—perhaps primarily—the Russian people and Russian culture who should get the credit. But as the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk said: “The buck stops here.” On the one hand, he meant the president ultimately gets blamed for whatever happens. He cannot “pass the buck,” i.e., blame others. On the other hand, presidents sometimes get praised for things they accomplished with the help of a lot of other people. I don’t know how much Putin is responsible for. But I have seen my native country change from what it was into something very different. During my lifetime America never was perfect for sure. Now, however, it has reached a deeper level, gone into a deeper descent. It is far more menacing—beyond what I ever dreamed. I’d like Russia to stay the way it is. That’s a bit self-centered I know. But politics is always local first.